How Taco John’s taco franchise innovates bold new menu items

Posted Aug 3rd, 2016

Our culinary chiefs gather fresh ideas from ‘taco tours,’ Tacolandia and more


There’s more to America’s favorite folded-and-filled tortilla dish than meets the eye. For every fresh, bold-tasting taco that’s wrapped up and served up hot at a Taco John’s Mexican restaurant, there’s a mountain of research, testing and meeting of the minds.

For his part, Bob Karisny, our Vice President for Menu Strategy and Innovation, regularly hits the road with Carl Blackbird, our Test Kitchen Chef , for “taco tours” — which are exactly what they sound like.

“One of the most important ways we gather ideas for new menu offerings at Taco John’s is through actually eating Mexican influenced menu items from traditional to innovative cooks around the U.S. and Mexico. We call these restaurant visits taco tours,” says Karisny. He and Blackbird have toured dozens of cities, from Mexico City and Tijuana to Austin and Minneapolis.

They bring their ideas back to the Taco John’s test kitchen, where something good is being cooked up daily, tasted, tested, refined and retried. “We look at flavor, texture, portion size, all those things,” Karisny says. “Then we look at it in the context of the Taco John’s format — how do we take something and produce it on a large scale? We have to create a menu item that can be put together within our current operations system. We have to consider, is this an 8- to 10-week promo item or will it have a longer-term life on our menu? We may take on something a bit more challenging if we know it has a longer-term opportunity.”

Collaboration is key

Both Karisny and Blackbird are culinary experts — Karisny trained at the Culinary Institute of America and has decades of R&D experience for food franchises, while Blackbird graduated from Johnson & Wales University and has been working in restaurant kitchens since he was 14. The combination of these two innovators keeps the Taco John’s menu dynamic and relevant, but we need more, but we need more than the opinions of our master chefs when we’re considering new menu items.

“We have chefs on-site on a daily basis trying out new products, and our chefs are out there beating the bushes and searching out new ideas. When they bring back an idea, it goes through a thorough screening process and a lot of collaboration with our other departments, like Marketing, Operations and Procurement/Distribution, to make sure it works on all levels,” says Van Ingram, Vice President of Franchise Development.

Once everyone is on board, field testing is conducted. Once an item is actually in our restaurants, the customer response determines what happens next. Take our Street Tacos, for example. We developed Street Tacos as part of our LTO strategy, and when they proved to be wildly popular, we knew they needed to become a permanent part of the menu. Whenever something new is added permanently, that means going back to all departments and discussing what needs to be rotated off the menu to make room.

It’s important to innovate while keeping a core menu of favorites that bring the customer back again and again. It’s also important to make sure every single menu item makes sense on all levels. It has to meet our high standard for quality; it has to be craveable to create customer demand; and it must pass the test for franchisee profitability, both in terms of cost of goods and efficiency.

“That’s why collaboration is crucial, and that’s why every department needs to be involved in the decision-making process,” Ingram says.

The takeaway from Tacolandia 2016 was lots of crisp accompaniments, lots of bold salsas. Our culinary team will develop ways to incorporate those trends into the Taco John’s menu.

What’s coming next

Our culinary team’s commitment to keeping up with Mexican food trends is how we’re able to plan our development menu 2 years out. Karisny already has his proteins picked for 2017. He’s got a handle on what will be key in 2018. He can even tell you which item is likely to make a big splash in 2020 (hint: it involves tortillas, but it isn’t a taco). In addition to taco tours, Karisny and Blackbird also track food festivals. They’re planning a trip to Hatch Chile Festival in Hatch, New Mexico, this fall, and will hit up Santa Fe and Taos while they’re at it. And they recently spent an enlightening day at Tacolandia, the “one-day event where over 100 of L.A.’s best taquerias, taco stands, trucks and taco enthusiasts come together and share some of their best stuff,” Karisny says.

“As we build new menu items, we integrate these elements into food that will resonate with our guests and can be easily executed within our restaurants.” Karisny says. “We also use this information to refine flavors. Our guests might not be ready for names like de arbol, guajillo, ‘that green stuff’ or ‘green crack,’ but they do know what tastes good.”

Learn more about our taco franchise opportunity

If you’d like to learn more about single- and multi-unit franchise opportunities with Taco John’s QSR Mexican food franchise, please fill out the form at right to download our free franchise report. You can also learn more about the opportunity by exploring our in-depth research pages.